Theme-based learning isn't always easy to explain to prospective parents. This helps show how different subjects are incorporated into themes, an approach that has proved to help students make natural connections and better synthesize information. Here's a run down of the 2011-2012 themes:
The year started with the eight-week theme Happy Accidents, which showed students how much can be learned (and even discovered!) when you try something, even if it doesn't turn out as you intended. The theme addressed the process of discovery through serendipity, whereby one finds something while searching for something entirely different. Students explored historical serendipitous discoveries in the fields of art, physics, chemistry, biology, and geography; studied chance and probabilities; and went on various treasure hunts.
- Experimenting with gravitation (Newton and his apple), buoyancy (Archimedes and his bath), electricity and light (Edison and the light bulb), combustion (Priestley and his discovery of oxygen)
- Learing about natural selection by playing predator/prey games using populations of beans and peas on various backgrounds.
- Creating art pieces by shaking ink from markers
- Writing random stories
- Following the tracks of Columbus on his discovery of the New World
The seven-week Colonies theme came next. Elementary school students spent the first two weeks learning about animal colonies, choosing to study bees, ants, naked mole rats or meerkats, and teaching each other at the end. The next three weeks focused on either Portuguese, Spanish, English or French colonies, with students exploring why people left their country of origin, what they got where they settled, and what happened to previous inhabitants, again teaching each other at the end. Week six was devoted to a timeline of North American colonies, and the last week to the collaborative design of the students’ own fictitious colonies.
During the Colonies theme, middle school students:
- Examined mold colonies under the microscope.
- Studied four different human colonies endeavors: Kibbutzim, the original penal colony of Australia; the colonizing of Irish in America following the Potato Famine; and the failed search for the Fountain of Youth by Ponce de Leon.
- Contrasted the impact of different colonial powers in the New World.
- Studied different theories about the 1590 Lost Colony of Roanoke and proceeded to defend the theory they had chosen to study in front of their peers in a game show or talk show format.
They ended the theme by exploring the idea of colonialism versus imperialism, using an interactive activity (also used in the upper elementary classroom) in which half of the class incarnated the Republic of Orange and was at odds with the other half incarnating the Republic of the Blue.
The 2010-11 school year ended with a four-week long elementary school theme on Vikings. Students learned about Norse myths, traditions, art, daily life, ships and explorations. The upper elementary students wrote Viking riddle poems, memorized and recited poems by or about Vikings, and created artwork inspired by Norse art.
The middle school students chose to end the school year with a theme on rivers instead. They studied three different types of rivers: alluvial, blackwater and springfed, and organized paddling field trips to local rivers representative of each type.
The 2011-12 school year started with a four-week theme on the Five Senses. Students experimented with their vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste, often by trying to trick their senses. In the middle school, students also heard about the less well-known vestibular and proprioceptive senses and investigated animal senses.
Students spent nine weeks learning about notes, intervals, scales, rhythm, melody, and harmony. They read books about music and musicians, experimented with the physics of sound, practiced ensemble skills, learned to play simple tunes on glockenspiels and/or recorders, and drummed away with Yazid Johnson (thanks to the Parent/Teacher Organization, which provided funding). They sang Halloween songs, French songs, and circle songs. They also heard different types of music and were introduced to different instruments by various guests. The upper elementary class heard about the power of music on memory and sang for local Alzheimer’s patients, while the middle school class voted to include musical excerpts in its Fall drama performance. By the end of the theme, most students had gained enough confidence to think of themselves as musicians and to agree to perform publicly, which the families enjoyed at the school’s Thanksgiving Feast on Nov. 22.
2011 ended with the first half of a seven-week long elementary school theme on China. This theme will continue into January, the end coinciding with Chinese New Year. The theme is organized around the geography of China. The students explore different climatic regions one at a time, looking at the flora, fauna, history and cultures specific to each region, starting with mountains and continuing with rivers, deserts, etc. They practice their own mapping skills, ponder over night and day and time zones, experiment with deformation when studying mountain formation, and with the water cycle when studying rivers. Students learn to write Chinese characters, make Chinese paper cut-outs, build lanterns and dragons, cook Chinese food, read Chinese tales, and play Chinese games during PE.
In the meantime, the middle schoolers are starting a unit on foreign affairs in the context of their Model United Nations project. They study topics such as infant mortality or the treatment of handicapped children in South Korea and Germany. On Feb. 17, they will participate in the 17th annual Tallahassee Southern Model United Nations conference, held at the state Capitol.